As you approach the Mazda Mazda6 i Grand Touring, your walkway is illuminated by the Welcome Lighting on the underside of the rearview mirrors. Don't bother taking the smart key out of your pocket, a mere touch of the door handle will unlock the vehicle. Don't bother futzing with the headlamps or windshield wipers either, it's automatic. Just settle into the heated leather-trimmed seats, press the start button to bring the peppy engine to life, and you're off.
For 2009, the Mazda6 has grown in both size and ambition. When viewed from the front or rear quarter, this midsize car has bulging fenders, a low nose, and a sweeping roofline, which makes it look absolutely sporty. However, when viewed from the side, its slab-sided profile belies its newfound size. No longer can detractors complain about the 6's diminutive size compared with the Toyota Camrys and Nissan Altimas of the midsize sedan segment, because the Mazda6 has grown in nearly every dimension.
On the road
The Mazda6 looked the sports car part, with its 17-inch rims and windswept looks. However, driving the Mazda6 with vigor is a bit like driving a sports car with a remote control, as we learned on a twisty back road east of the San Francisco Bay area.
The soft suspension causes the body to move around quite a bit when turning hard, which reduces the responsiveness of what otherwise feels like a fantastically engineered chassis. Compounding the driver/road disconnect is the trademark large sedan vague steering and superlight clutch pedal, with its questionable engagement point. We also found ourselves sliding all over the wide, poorly bolstered leather seats.
Clearly the big 6 was out of its element on the twisties, but when we reached the highway on our way back to the CNET garage, the Mazda really came into its stride.
The Mazda6's suspension soaked up the bumps and cracks of the washboard that is Interstate 580--a road that rattles even small crossovers--in Oakland, Calif. The ride was smooth and quiet allowing the optional Bose premium audio system to shine. Over long sweeping turns, the Mazda6 didn't exhibit as much body roll as it did earlier and felt absolutely planted for off-ramp blasts.
As we neared the city, we eventually found ourselves in bumper to bumper commuter traffic. Suddenly, we appreciated the light clutch as we inched forward without tiring our left leg out prematurely. The 2.5-liter inline-four cylinder engine has enough low-end torque to creep the sedan along at low speeds with minimal fuss. The blind spot monitoring system assisted us in confidently weaving through traffic when an opening presented itself.
By the time we'd parked the Mazda6 for the night, we'd all but forgotten the sedan's back road blunders and gained an appreciation for its highway manners and excellent cabin quality.
In the cabin
The Mazda6 i Grand Touring only comes with one configuration for the cabin trim: black plastic with black leather seats.
The plastic that makes up the dash is a high-quality soft plastic that's both pleasing to the eye and to the touch. The center console and lower dash are accented by an odd, glossy faux-wood that we couldn't decide whether we liked it.
We're not sure if this is supposed to be wood. In fact, we're not even sure if we like it.
The center of the dash in our tester was dominated by a 7-inch touch-screen display where the audio sources and DVD-based navigation system are controlled. The screen is bright and big, but the graphics leave much to be desired, particularly when viewing the map. The positioning of the screen aims the display up and away from the driver, annoyingly creating glare in direct sunlight. The display can be tilted, but only further upward, thus increasing the glare.
Although the system supports voice controls, we stuck to using the touch screen for the bulk of our input because Mazda's finicky voice recognition software requires very specific commands to perform actions. Including onscreen prompts telling us what the system wanted to hear would go a long way toward increasing the system's functionality.
Behind the touch screen is a six-disc CD player with MP3 playback capabilities, part of an optional 10-speaker Bose premium audio package. That's where your MP3 journey ends with the Mazda6, unless you have an A2DP-enabled Bluetooth MP3 player or mobile phone. The Grand Touring trim level of the Mazda6 includes Bluetooth as a standard feature. We were able pair our T-Mobile Shadow for both hands-free calling and audio streaming in one fell swoop. Once connected, we were given limited control over playback from our phone (only play, pause, and skipping forward and back). Our phone didn't broadcast track information, so the audio system was unable to display song or artist information.
The Mazda6 offers a wide range of audio sources, but sadly, no iPod or USB integration.
iPod and iPhone users are out of luck, we found no iPod or USB integration available on the Mazda6 and the devices don't support audio streaming. There is, however, a 1/8-inch aux-input tucked into the center console.
While the Mazda6 i Grand Touring's leather seats may not grip as well as the Mazda RX-8 R3's Recaros, they are infinitely more comfortable. The seats have heated surfaces and the memory positions. When used with Mazda Advanced Keyless Entry & Start System, the seats can be programmed to automatically adjust to configuration stored on the key fob.
The list of standard safety features for the Mazda6 Grand Touring is impressive, including rain sensing windshield wipers, automatic xenon headlamps, and blind spot monitoring. That last system illuminates a light when a vehicle is in your blind spot and sounds a chime if you activate your turn signal. Unfortunately, the system only works when driving faster than 20mph, rendering it useless in stop and go traffic.
Missing from the Mazda6's available options is a backup camera option or at least some sort of proximity detection, which would come in handy when parallel parking the high-rumped sedan.
Oddly, the Mazda6, when equipped with the four-cylinder engine, only comes in four colors: black, grey, silver, and red. The V-6 Mazda6 s, on the other hand, comes in nine colors, so if you want a blue or white vehicle, you're going to have to go with the bigger engine. That just doesn't make sense to us.
Under the hood
Apparently, the Mazda6 also been working out, featuring a larger stronger engine than the outgoing model. The 2.5-liter inline-four cylinder engine can be best described as peppy. Its 170 horsepower would be a lot of power in a vehicle the size of a Civic, but in the big and heavy Mazda6, it's merely adequate.
The sedan accelerates off the line with a smooth swell of power and little drama. Quickly dropping the clutch on the one-two shift elicits a chirp from the front tires, but don't be fooled. That's not power you're hearing, only the sedan's great weight shifting to the rear wheels. There's enough power to get you moving at a reasonable clip, but not enough to snap necks.
Bringing the best out of the power that the Mazda6 does posses is the fantastic six-speed speed manual transmission. While we have our qualms with the light clutch pedal and its vague engagement point, the shifter itself is a fantastic unit, with butter-smooth shifts that seem to just fall into place.
If you want to have any fun with the Mazda6, you're going to want the six-speed manual.
Coupled with the manual gearbox, the Mazda6 i manages a reasonable 20 mpg city and 29 mpg on the highway. Drivers wanting a bit more power can upgrade to the Mazda6 s--with its 3.7-liter, 272 horsepower V-6 engine--but will have to make due with a single option six-speed automatic transmission and a mediocre 17 city and 25 highway mpg.
The handling is more grand-touring grocery getter than road-holding sports sedan; however, if you really want a four-door sports car from Mazda, you'd probably be looking at the RX-8 anyway. On the sweeping turns of the highway and within the low speed limits of the city, the Mazda6 remains reasonably flat, but still compliant. Potholes and expansion joints are soaked up with minimum drama, while larger bumps are glided over with ease.
The list of standard features on the Mazda Mazda6 i Grand Touring is impressive, including Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, blind spot monitoring, and keyless entry and start. The Mazda6 starts to look even more impressive when you consider that even fully loaded with navigation, premium audio, and a sunroof, it comes in at an MSRP of $29,440.
At this price point, you're getting a vehicle that's better equipped than a similarly priced Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, and competitive with the Nissan Altima. We can't help but consider that the Mazda6 is a much better looking vehicle than the competition, but that's subjective.
Buyers wanting to save a bit of money can drop down to the spartan Mazda6 i SV--which loses most of the standard features to lower the price to a $19,220 entry point--and speed demons can step up to the fully-optioned Mazda6 s Grand Touring's V-6 for $32,995, but we think the Mazda6 as tested hits the sweet spot.